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It’s Way Too Early to Mourn Kramerbooks

The owner says the beloved bookstore and cafe is going to move out of its location, but that’s just talk for now

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, a Dupont Circle staple for 40 years, is changing hands, in Washington, DC.
Kramerbooks owner Steve Salis says he’s moving the beloved bookstore and cafe from its original Dupont Circle location
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Washingtonians mourned the city’s most iconic bookstore cafe yesterday, despite the fact that it isn’t closing yet and the lease is reportedly good for another six years.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe owner Steve Salis sent a ripple through the local corners of the internet when he proclaimed to Washington Business Journal that he is committed to moving the 44-year-old business out of its original location in Dupont Circle because the landlord has blocked his attempts to renovate the property. By the end of the day, WTOP and DCist picked up the story, and the Washington Post even ran a column on how the news represented a minor personal tragedy. A chorus of voices of Twitter, including the District’s deputy mayor, reacted by sharing their disappointment and rhapsodizing about intellectual awakenings and memorable first dates that took place from behind the glass windows underneath a sign lit up in recognizable red neon.

The reactions were so overwhelming that the bookstore posted on its own social media channels that it was not in fact closing. Kramerbooks has been delivering books through Postmates while business has been shut down during the coronavirus pandemic, and Afterwords is hosting a Fedwich pop-up from essential barbecue joint Federalist Pig.

While the nostalgia flows freely online, it’s important to note that Kramerbooks has not secured another location, and the person who’s pushing hardest for the move is an owner who bought the bookstore three years ago with plans to totally remake it, not a mustache-twirling landlord.

Salis tells WBJ he’s hopeful he can move the business soon, and “there are a slew of landlords out there who would love to have us.” He’s been talking about moving the business since at least last July. Kramerbooks has been involved in a legal battle with one of its landlords for over a year because the property owner has blocked the bookstore from a full-scale renovation, using the argument that removing a mezzanine will hurt the building’s value. WBJ reports that a judge ruled in Salis’s favor on that issue, allowing him to proceed with a lawsuit that could force the landlord’s hand in letting him out of a lease that runs through 2026.

In other words, there’s still plenty of work to be done and a lot of what-ifs standing between Kramerbooks and a move from a location that’s deeply entrenched in D.C. culture.

Salis fashions himself as a visionary with designs beyond managing local brands. He enriched himself as a founder at fast-casual chain &pizza, and has already moved diner chain Ted’s Bulletin away from its bygone-era identity by changing things up at its newest location, in Ballston. In past conversations with Eater and others, he’s talked about mixing and matching brands, finding ways to sell books and barbecue sandwiches and artisanal facsimiles of Pop-Tarts all within one location.

In Salis speak, that means turning Kramerbooks into “a high-sensory cultural experience” and creating a store that becomes a “multidimensional ecosystem around how one lives, works, and plays.” Whether it moves or not, Kramerbooks is headed for a huge makeover in the coming years.

The forecast for the future of small businesses is certainly grim as the D.C. area prepares to reopen from the worst stages of a public health crisis. Big-name restaurants like the Source by Wolfgang Puck and David Chang’s Momofuku CCDC have permanently closed, reasoning that their business won’t work in a COVID-19 era. Landlords who aren’t giving small businesses a break will play a part in many more closures.

That’s not what’s happening at Kramerbooks.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe

1517 Connecticut Avenue Northwest, , DC 20036 (202) 387-1400 Visit Website

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